Sanpei Shirato’s Ninja Bugeicho, one of the foundational texts in Japanese comics history (or so we’re told), is available to English-speaking audiences only in a rarely screened film version directed by Nagisa Oshima. The movie approximates the books fairly closely—each shot is a panel from the original art, with actors reading the dialogue—but the experience is still kind of like what would happen if, say, we were only able to know about Peanuts by listening to Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas album. Yeah, it’s a great record, and this is a fine film, but the gaping absence of that original material can’t help but leave me a little bit flummoxed.
Part of my bewilderment probably results from the movie not making much sense in the first place, though to its credit it’s often that brand of not-making-sense that is, at times, euphoric, or at least wtf-rrific. It tells the story of Jutaro, a young samurai who vows to avenge his slain father, a lord during Japan’s “age of turbulence” in the 16th century. He meets Kagemura, a mysterious ninja who leads a clan of other mysterious ninja whom he’s encountered in dire straits, much as he’s done Jutaro. These include the tortoise man, the triplets, and the electric man, “who kills people through the intermediation of water.” Basically, the ninja are magic, and can do anything, which results in a lot of faked deaths, doppelgangers, and Mission: Impossible-style surprise unmaskings. The Kage family, as the ninjas are known, ally themselves with the peasants and farmers in their revolt against the ruling class, as personified by Nobunaga Oda and Jutaro’s father’s murderer, Shuzen Sakagami (who is also sometimes the Oda clan’s samurai retainer, Mitsuhide Akeshi… or something). The dual storylines of peasant revolution and personal vendetta make for an impressive series of battle scenes and duels, culminating in anticlimactic failures meant to impress upon all involved the need for endless struggle in the face of defeat.
It moves at a furious pace—the first images we see are abstract, sweeping motion lines—cutting to a new panel every split second, streamlining the manga’s many volumes down to a typical feature-length running time. In the process, it probably loses much in the way of plot, and definitely loses much in the way of character. Though the original Japanese version has dialogue and intertitles throughout, these remain untranslated in the English print currently circulating, so that the monolinguists among us only ever sort of find out what’s going on during the intermittent volleys of Phil Hartman-esque voiceover narration—“Who are you, Kagemura?” or “The rats carry explosives!” or “She takes a ninja bath!”
The lack of English-language information about either the film or the manga further complicates matters. The raggedy version shown at Cinematheque Ontario last weekend ran about 100 minutes—not the 90 or 131 minutes listed in other sources. Is there a longer, more coherent English version extant? Writers variously refer to the manga as Chronicle of a Ninja’s Military Accomplishments (Frederik L. Schodt, Paul Gravett) in 17 volumes, or as Secret Martial Arts of the Ninja in eight volumes (Sharon Kinsella), while the film gets called Band of Ninja (Cinematheque Ontario), Tales of the Ninja (IMDB), Manual of Ninja Martial Arts (Oshima himself, translated by Dawn Lawson), or, as the title card in the English version reads, simply Ninja. Could they make my Google searches any more complex?
In any case, the literature tells us that Sanpei Shirato launched the Ninja Bugeicho manga in 1959 as a book for rent in Japan’s pay-library market, the poorly-compensated breeding ground for the kind of outlaw, adult-oriented comics that came to be known as gekiga. Its realism was innovative, both in terms of its historical focus and its depiction of violence—indeed, it would be removed from many shops soon after it began publication, in a crusade against “sadistic images” in pay-library manga. Its themes of oppression and class struggle first resonated with workers, and then with students, as the left opposed and demonstrated against and eventually rioted in protest of the Japan-America Security Treaty. It’s easy to see why politicised youth took so strongly to the manga: “To benefit farmers, we’re going to destroy all rulers,” says Kagemura in the film. “If I die, somebody will replace me, and we’ll keep on fighting no matter how many battles we lose.”
Shirato ended the series in 1962, and began Kamuiden, by most accounts his greatest work, in the pages of Garo, the legendary alternative manga magazine created specifically to showcase this strip. Another historical gekiga featuring ninja, Kamuiden seems to have been in many ways an elaboration of the themes of Ninja Bugeicho. (A 1980s sequel to Kamuiden is the only Shirato available in English. The Legend of Kamui is still concerned with peasant uprising and class warfare, but on a more individual level, and for some reason is considerably more Koike/Kojima than his earlier work’s sketchy, bloody take on Tezuka. Bill Randall wrote a fine essay on it in The Comics Journal, which I sadly don’t have at hand, though Jog’s written an aside on it as well.) Paul Gravett tells us that Kamui’s face appeared blazoned on banners during student protests, while Frederik L. Schodt assures us that reading Shirato in the ’60s was many people’s substitute for reading Marx—though I don’t remember quite this many severed limbs in Marx.
While the 28-year-old Shirato was in the midst of creating the Ninja Bugeicho manga, and while Japan’s youth was demonstrating in the streets, the 28-year-old Nagisa Oshima was releasing, among other films, Night and Fog in Japan (1960). A righteous and angry film analysing the aspirations and shortcomings of the leftist student movements of the previous decade, Night and Fog in Japan shares with Ninja Bugeicho a kind of defeatist optimism, an imperative to continue the fight no matter what. It should come as little surprise, then, that Oshima, so invested in the political thoughts and actions of students, should choose to film one of their cultural touchstones. So in 1967, while Shirato continued to make ninja parables for the proletariat in Garo, Oshima released his version of Ninja Bugeicho—which went on to enjoy “unprecedented” commercial success, says the filmmaker, allowing him to make his canonical Death by Hanging (1968) as a follow-up.
The Marx is there, in the film, I suppose—like, you could probably call the delineation of the feudal era’s injustices historical materialist, while Kagemura explains his philosophy to Jutaro by saying, “What is important is to get closer to our purpose: that all men live equally and happily”—but these ideological foundations kind of get washed aside by all the waves of blood. The pleasures of the film aren’t really all that intellectual: this thing is mainly just apocalyptic in its violence. We start off with a woman ninja’s severed arm falling with a thud to the ground, and from there we’ve got beheading after beheading, heads impaled on stakes (“as examples”), Kagemura’s enchanted head paraded around town but refusing to rot and instead laughing tauntingly, arrows through children’s throats, decaying torsos perched in trees, exploding rats, a million crazed rats devouring everything in sight and leaving grisly skeletons, horses and men routed and burning and screaming, swords through pregnant bellies, and a drawing and quartering made even more gruesome by its abruptness. All this, of course, is aided by Shirato’s deft choreography, and accompanied by the most lovingly chosen, juicily rendered foley effects I’ve ever heard—never have swords slicing through meat and bone sounded so bloody palpable.
The art, too, retains its tactile qualities. Photographed extremely close, cropping out panel borders, word balloons, and most sound effects, the pictures become their own world, one which the camera can pan through, or shoot from a particular angle, much as it would do in any other real world setting. The experience would be immersive, if it weren’t for the fact that the art is so clearly artificial, a product of Shirato’s hand. His pencil roughs still shimmer around and slash through the final inked figures, lending a further illusion of motion to the effect created by Oshima’s rapidfire cuts. The camera rarely lingers over these details though, as Terry Zwigoff would later do while using the same close photography in Crumb. Instead, with image quickly replacing image, each one blown up from the page onto the silver screen, everything becomes abstracted: oceans of ink used to fill in blacks, strands of hair dissociating into mere brushstrokes, the very speed with which the drawing was accomplished seeming to take place before our very eyes. Oshima’s film isn’t just a manual of martial arts, but a handbook of purely cinematic techniques of art appreciation, too.
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